As the U.S. Food and Drug Administration continues to weigh its preliminary decision to phase out partially hydrogenated oils — the main dietary source of artificial trans fats in food — foodservice operators are listening to their customers and beginning to look for more healthful alternatives for their frying solutions.

Previously, the FDA had ruled that partially hydrogenated oils were “generally recognized as safe,” or GRAS, a designation indicating a product is lawful for use in food. More recently, though, the agency said it had reviewed other scientific evidence and determined that artificial trans fats can contribute to health problems, maintaining they increase the risk of developing heart disease by raising low-density lipoprotein, or bad cholesterol.

While trans fats occur naturally in some animal products like milk and meat, they also are formed artificially during food processing when hydrogen is added to vegetable oil to prolong shelf life and improve the texture and taste of certain foods. The agency says the ban will only affect artificial trans fats and not those that occur naturally.

Before the FDA made its announcement, many food manufacturers and restaurant operators in the United States already had reduced their use of artificial trans fats. In 2006 the government mandated that food processors must list trans fats on the nutrition facts label on packaged foods. As soon as the information began to appear on the panels, there was a voluntary exit  away from the use of trans fats, which resulted in taking 73 percent of the trans fats out of the food supply, says Roger Daniels, vice president, research, development and innovation for Stratas Foods LLC.

“By bringing an awareness of [trans fats] to the public, it brought the marketplace into play,” he says.

Restaurateurs also found themselves wrestling with the issue. New York City became the first U.S. jurisdiction to impose restrictions on the use of trans fats by foodservice operators in 2006, and was followed soon afterward by the State of California; the cities of Baltimore, Boston, Philadelphia and Cleveland; and Montgomery County, Md., and Westchester County, N.Y., among others. Regulations in those areas prohibit operators from using ingredients that contain more than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving.

Even before the FDA announced its recent determination Nov. 7, 2013, a number of foodservice  operators across the country, including McDonald's, Burger King and Dunkin' Donuts, already had taken voluntary action to reduce the trans fats in their cooking oils and fats. In one comment to the FDA's Nov. 7 announcement, seafood chain Long John Silver’s said it had transitioned to a trans-fat-free menu in about six months’ time, between August 2013 and January 2014.

After the FDA determined tentatively last November that partially hydrogenated oil was no longer recognized as safe, the National Restaurant Association advised restaurateurs to explore ways to remove trans fats from menus if the agency officially banned their use.

In a recent recommendation, the NRA suggested three actions operators could take to begin to remove artificial trans fats from the menu:

  1. Fry food in oils that don't contain trans fats, like canola oil, which is high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat.
  2. Read product labels, identify those items containing partially hydrogenated oils and find alternative products that are PHO free.
  3. Work with suppliers to find replacements.

Food manufacturers, in fact, have been active on the PHO front over the past several years. Stratas Foods says the FDA's final ruling comes as no surprise, given the trend to regulate PHO use at the state and local levels and the public's intensifying focus on nutrition. Consequently, Stratas says it has been actively developing the next generation of products for use in a trans-fat-free environment.

The Memphis, Tenn.-based company, which specializes in providing fats and oils to the foodservice, food ingredient and retail private label markets, says it has several new technological innovations available that feature zero trans fat per serving solutions. Fats that contain animal or partial hydrogenated oils are being replaced by the use of high oleic oils — high oleic soybean, canola and sunflower oils; the use of such natural sources of solid-containing oils as palm and palm kernel and coconut oil sources; designer lipids, such as Algal oils; and the use of next-generation seed oil products.

In addition, Stratas says it expects to expand its line of “interesterified,” or IE, shortenings, designed specifically to address the needs of bakers or restaurants with in-store bakeries looking for zero trans bakery products. By taking a fat and blending it with liquid oil and then adding an enzyme, the company has been able to develop shortening without PHOs and trans fats.

At the same time, Stratas says it has more new products in the research and development phase.

In the meantime, as the foodservice industry continues to wait for the FDA's final ruling, operators should contact their oil and fat supplier or manufacturers to determine which path is best for their operations and menus.

“We're already hearing from restaurants looking for guidance,” says Stratas's Daniels.  “There is an active dialog going on between the company and restaurateurs. Operators should work with their suppliers to design the best solutions they need — and if a supplier doesn't have those solutions, they should find one that does.”